Statement of UNV Executive Coordinator Capeling-Alakija to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg
30 August 2002
Mr. President, distinguished delegates, colleagues, friends:
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you, on behalf of UNV, the United Nations Volunteer programme. Time is short, so let's get to the heart of the matter.
It has been said that sustainable development rests on three cornerstones: economic growth, environmental conservation and social development.
I believe that in fact, our efforts would be most powerful and stable if they rested on four cornerstones. The one I would add is voluntary action. In the next few minutes, I'd like to tell you why.
Sustainable development is an immense concept.
The territory covered is so vast that to take it in, you have to distance yourself from it… you need to pull back. You need an aerial view.
Or: you can do just the opposite. You can zoom in for a close up view of the lives of ordinary people - because that is where these "three cornerstones" truly come together.
After all, each life is a microcosm of sustainable development. An individual who lives in hostile environmental conditions, for example, has limited prospects for work. And where there is no employment, social and economic development certainly suffer.
If your view is too distant-if you're taking an aerial view-it's possible to lose track of the people who are living the challenges of sustainable development. Most of us who work in the realm of development can cite examples of the failed policies or practices that can result when the frequent flyers among us fail to see what is happening on the ground.
When you're dealing with problems that have an immense scale, it is easy to lose track of the challenges faced by ordinary people.
But here is the key point I want to make today: it is also easy to lose track of the contributions they can make.
In reality, the implementation of Agenda 21 requires the everyday, voluntary actions of millions of people.
Why? It's a no-brainer, really. The needs of people living in poverty, coping with environmental degradation, facing social adversity, are so massive, that there is not enough money to solve them all. What's more, although very important, money cannot solve all problems.
Sustainable development requires the ingenuity, solidarity, and creativity of millions of ordinary people. It hinges on the conviction that our destinies as people sharing a place and time-whether a village or a planet-are inextricably linked.
This conviction has a place in every society. Virtually every culture has a tradition of involvement in the wider community that includes voluntary service or giving.
Here in South Africa, this conviction is conveyed by the word ubuntu - a sense of cosmic wholeness in which individual destiny is indistinguishable from that of the community:
I am because we are.
Such convictions go to the heart of sustainable development - because institutional efforts cannot be sustained without the support and willing participation of ordinary people.
To be sure, voluntary action takes place whether or not we take notice. It often happens without official sanction or support.
Across this continent, millions of children have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Some have been cared for through programs funded by national governments. But the scale of the problem is so enormous that governments cannot manage alone, even with the support of international agencies.
Sadly, many children have simply been abandoned, but many more of Africa's orphans have been absorbed into extended family networks. Despite the poverty afflicting so many communities, we still see people taking care of other people's children.
I am because we are.
Across Africa and around the world, even as we speak, unobserved acts of generosity, even heroism, are taking place. Somewhere - or rather, in many, many "somewheres" - neighbours are helping each other repair a roof, learn a new skill, carry safe water from a distant well, or care for a child in need.
But the fact that good deeds grow in the wild does not free us from the obligation to cultivate them.
Like the other cornerstones of sustainable development, voluntary action must be studied, understood, planned for, and facilitated. The barriers that impede volunteerism must be identified and moved out of the way. The value of volunteer efforts needs to be measured, documented and communicated.
At UNV, we are working to promote the growth of a vital, global volunteer movement.
Thanks to the International Year of Volunteers, commemorated around the world last year, the movement is stronger and many more countries have an improved infrastructure for voluntary action as well as policies and legislation aimed at facilitating volunteerism.
The year is over, but the beat must go on…. Here in South Africa, we are thrilled to say that president Mbeki has declared 2002 the National Year of the Volunteer, with the slogan, "Arise and Act".
We have seen at this summit that south Africans are ready and willing to do just that. UNV helped JOWSCO to mobilize 5,000 people to assist with virtually every aspect of local planning and logistics.
They are part of a movement that, as the late Steve Biko anticipated, can change the habits of people not by force, but by dedication and moral persuasion.
Our hope, at UNV, is that every organization represented in this room will rethink its own efforts, taking full account of the fourth cornerstone on which sustainable development rests: voluntary action.
Our hope is that every plan and every policy you shape will take full account of the power of one idea.
I am because we are.
Thank you very much.